On July 25th of 1983, Daniel turned eleven, which meant a small party and a cake decorated with a green tractor, like the one his father used to plow the soil. His mom was there, and his Mamma, too. His dad stayed until the birthday song was over, but then he went to get some work done and also to get some drinking done. Despite his regular absence at the house, Daniel looked up to him. His dad was friends with nearly everyone in town, but he would occasionally get into a bar fight with one of them. He almost always won. That is what the kids at school told him anyway.
But it was not July 25th; it was July 26th and school was not in session. There was no one to tell him about his dad’s latest brawl, there was no cake left, and there was nothing to do, so he walked down to the lake to skip stones. Jay was there, leaning on a rock and holding a book. Daniel could make out some of the words on the cover: The Red Badge of…Jay’s hand covered the word on the bottom.
“Your momma lock you out again?” Daniel asked.
Jay did not look up. “Yep.”
Daniel reached in his pocket, pulled out a lighter, and started flicking it over and over. “What does she do when she locks you out?”
Curious about the flicking noise, Jay looked up at Daniel. “I don’t know; I am locked out! Duh! Where did you get that?”
“Oh, this?” He held up the disposable lighter. “Found it on the road. Don’t ya ever spy on her? Look in the window to see what she’s doin’? I would. We should do that. Let’s go.”
Looking down at his book again, Jay said, “You go. I don’t care.”
Daniel returned the lighter to his pocket and walked closer to the lake to survey the rocks for a good skipping stone. Without turning around, he said, “You’re no fun.” He inhaled deeply – taking in a familiar dead fish smell – before exhaling loudly. He quickly spun around, “I know where a cave is! My dad told me ‘bout it. It’s behind Old Kal’s barn.”
Jay closed the book. “You are full of bullhockey, Daniel. I have been in back of Old Kal’s barn a million times and have never seen a cave.”
“Is too! Old-old Kal, Old Kal’s dad, covered up the hole with a rock before he died. My dad was in his twenties back then. He said they all used to go down there and drink. That’s why he covered it up; all the kids trespassing on his property. I betcha we can move the rock together.”
Jay stood up and tried to look Daniel right in the eye, even though he was a few inches shorter. “You don’t even have a flashlight. How are we gonna see?”
Daniel took the lighter out of his pocket again. “With this! You ain’t scared of the dark, are ya?”
That is when Jay started walking in the direction of Old Kal’s barn, and Daniel was at his heels. The two strolled in silence past the cornfields until they turned the corner of the wooden barn. Jay’s eyes widened a little bit when he saw there was actually a fairly big rock, hidden partially by overgrown weeds.
Daniel pushed the weeds down with his hand. “Told ya!”
“We can’t move that rock. You’re crazy!” Jay turned and started walking back the way they came.
“Bawk. Bawk.” Daniel folded his arms in like wings and flapped them.
Even though Jay was shorter and less developed than Daniel, he felt empowered by his intelligence and irritation. He shoved him down.
Daniel rolled on his knees. “Jay, you’re stonger than ya look! Why don’t you just help me move the rock,” he tapped on it, “then you can leave if you really want to.” Daniel pushed the rock as hard as he could. “See, I need ya, brotha.”
“I am not your brother or anything like that. We are hardly even friends. We are just stuck out here together because we don’t have anything better to do.” He sat down next to him and picked at weeds that smelled like onions.
He laid his hand on Jay’s shoulder. “If anybody says they’re your friend – or your brother – you shouldn’t argue with ‘em. You need every friend you can get. Now help me move this rock!”
Daniel was right, and Jay knew it. He did not have a lot of friends, but that never bothered him. Still, he felt inspired from the book he had been reading to do something other than go home and check to see if his mom unlocked the front door yet. “Your leg muscles are stronger than your arm muscles. If we can move this rock, it’s going to have to be with our legs, not our arms.”
The two boys put their dirty boots on the rock and counted to three. The rock budged. They counted again and again and again until they uncovered a hole the size of a basketball. Daniel disappeared through the hole into the darkness. He fell back, but he was not hurt. As quickly as he could, he flicked his lighter and looked around.
“C’mon,” he yelled up to Jay. “It’s really rad.”
Jay took a deep breath and jumped through the hole. He grabbed for the lighter, but the metal burned his hand. It fell to the ground. It was pitch black.
Daniel crossed his arms. “I thought you were a genius. Now we can’t see anything.”
Jay fumbled on the ground for the lighter. “Ow!” The lighter’s metal tip burned his hand again, but this time, he did not let go. “Got it.” He flicked it. The flame seemed to give off so little light in the grand room of the cave. The two walked around, looking at litter left down there.
Daniel kicked a pile of Schlitz beer cans, which gave off a really loud crashing sound that echoed in the cave. “These are prolly all my dad’s.”
Ignoring him, Jay explored the walls of the cave and saw it branched off in several directions. There were piles of string leading down each vein of the cave and chalk arrows on the walls.
Daniel promptly followed after Jay and the lighter that was truly his. “Let’s go down this one,” he said pointing to a narrow opening.
“Just for a minute. Mom usually opens the door around dinner time, and my stomach is starting to growl.”
The boys were only in that tunnel a minute when it split into another tunnel and another. At times, the walls were wide apart and the ceiling was high. Other times, they had to trudge like army men to get through. Jay felt he was living out the character in his book and kept going deeper and deeper into the cave until they came to a ten-foot drop off.
“C’mon, let’s jump,” Daniel said as he looked over the edge. “You can see the bottom even with that little lighter.”
“The cliff has a flat face. How would we get back up?” Jay turned around.
“Oh yeah.” Daniel followed after Jay.
Jay led the way the best he could, but nothing looked familiar. The chalk arrows on the cave walls pointed in opposing directions. Eventually, Daniel snatched the lighter back from him and started leading. It seemed like hours and hours they walked through that cave.
Jay stopped and sat on the ground. “I’m scared, and I don’t even care what you think about it.”
“Me too.” After a moment, he said, “God, if you are up there, me and Jay – remember us? We are stuck down here and would appreciate some help finding the way out of this place. That’s all. Amen.”
Jay stood up. “I didn’t know you believed in God. I don’t.”
Daniel started walking. “I don’t know if I do either. If He gets us out, I will believe. Maybe.”
The boys walked and walked. Still, nothing looked familiar, but Daniel spotted some chalk words on the cave wall. He read them to Jay, “Jesus saves. This way out!”
The boys started running in the direction of the arrow underneath those words. Before long, they returned to the big room of the cave. Daniel stood on Jay’s shoulders to escape into the fading sunlight. Daniel wedged his foot behind the rock they had moved to get inside and pulled Daniel up.
“Thanks, brother,” Jay said to Daniel.
The boys pushed the rock back in the same way they moved it to uncover the hole – with their feet. They ran together past the cornfield and all the way to the gravel road where Jay’s house was. Then, Daniel walked home the rest of the way.
The two continued to be friends for the rest of their lives, even after Jay became a preacher and Daniel became a bar brawler like his dad. In all that time, they never returned to Old Kal’s Cave. No person ever did. Old Kal never told Little Kal what was hiding under the rock, not even when Little Kal became Old Kal and Old Kal became Old-old Kal and Old-old Kal was long forgotten.
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